Ready for Anything?

Woman in red walks across flooded field to small house

Sunamganj, Bangladesh. Flooding and other weather extremes will become more likely as climate change advances. Source: © 2012 G. M. B. Akash/Panos

The timing was perfect, unfortunately. This past June, a United Nations committee released a report called Food Security and Climate Change>—just as the earth’s land surface was experiencing its warmest average monthly temperature on record and a major drought was stunting much of the globally important US maize crop.

A New World

Clearly, it’s a new world for farmers. “That’s where resiliency comes in,” says agricultural economist Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at IFPRI who led the team that prepared the report for the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on World Food Security.

Here’s the idea behind resiliency, according to Nelson: “If the weather turns on a dime, you won’t be totally wiped out.” It’s a simple concept. In practice, though, the process of building resilience into the global food production and distribution system, as the report recommends, is long and complicated. And although we know a great deal about how to create a more resilient food system, in many cases we are still waiting for answers to important    questions.

Withstanding Weather Extremes

Any attempt to build a food system that can withstand climate change must deal with maize and the other staple grains—rice and wheat—that occupy most of the cropland, scientific attention, and plate space in rich and poor countries alike. These grains account for 50 percent of world calorie consumption, the report notes, and even more in developing regions.

How can the farmers who grow these staple grains become more resilient to weather extremes? Maize farmers could plant seed that’s been genetically modified to resist heat, but Nelson says research on that front has a ways to go. Sorghum and millet do better in drier conditions, but yields are relatively low. How to raise them? Again, the answer is research.

Nelson and his colleagues also argue for devoting more research attention to fruits and vegetables, which have well-known health benefits but need to be made more adaptable to extreme weather. These crops make another contribution to resilience: they are far more profitable for small-scale farmers than staple grains. More income security allows farmers not only to eat better, but also to withstand the economic shocks that can follow floods, droughts, and other events in a changing climate.

For more information on this topic:

15 scenarios of population growth, income growth, and climate change through 2050, with various results for food security

How climate change will likely affect the commodities and natural resources of greatest concern to the world’s poor